Christ­mas on the back roads of my mind

The Covington News - - OPINION - MAU­RICE CARTER COLUM­NIST Mau­rice Carter is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent, a na­tive At­lantan, an IT con­sul­tant by pro­fes­sion, and an ac­tive com­mu­nity vol­un­teer at heart. He can be reached at mau­ricec7@bell­south.net.

Trav­el­ing around town by car, bike, or on foot, I pass through the Cov­ing­ton square any­time I can. But, es­pe­cially at Christ­mas time, I can’t re­sist the lure of our down­town.

Sure, it’s beau­ti­ful and there are busi­nesses there that de­serve and have earned my sup­port. But, some­thing more draws me in this time of year — es­pe­cially at night. It’s some­thing that goes back to my child­hood some 50 years ago. And, it’s a feel­ing that touches me deep in­side in places words can never fully ex­plain.

I wasn’t born in Cov­ing­ton or New­ton County. In fact, un­til I met Kim and we started dat­ing in col­lege, I’d never been on I-20 be­yond the perime­ter. Yet, our town evokes for me spe­cial child­hood mem­o­ries of places far from here and times long since passed.

It’s the mid to late 60s and I’m with my younger brother and sis­ter in the back of ei­ther a circa 1962 Ford Star­liner, a ’65 Fal­con sta­tion wagon, or even crammed into the back of ’67 Mus­tang — de­pend­ing on the year. Be­ing the old­est, I get the back­seat of the Mus­tang, while the other two curl into floor board cubby holes be­hind the front seats. How we fit, I’ll never know. There were no child seats in those days. Then again, there was no room to be flung about even if we did have a wreck.

Dark­ness oblit­er­ates the world out­side the car, as Mom and Dad have us trav­el­ing at night in hopes our sleep will sub­due the in­ces­sant asks of “Are we there yet?” It works on the other two, but not on me. From birth, I was afraid I might miss some­thing if I ever closed my eyes. I never slept in the car.

We’re on the two-lane back roads of south­east Ge­or­gia, on a Christ­mas jour­ney to my fa­ther’s home town of Bax­ley, where our grand­par­ents await. It’s a stretch of road known mostly to­day as the Golden Isles Park­way, but back then it was just plain ol’ U.S. High­way 23 and Ga. High­way 27. Even as a young boy, I knew the route and the se­quence of towns by heart, and could rat­tle them off as eas­ily as the names of Santa’s rein­deer… There’s Ma­con and Cochran, then East­man and McRae. Fur­ther along came Lum­ber City, with its stinky pa­per mills, then Hazel­hurst and fi­nally Bax­ley.

In sum­mer, those 200-plus miles were an eternity to a child’s rest­less mind. Rid­ing some­times with my grand­fa­ther, I would im­pa­tiently ask, “When are we gonna get there?” Each time, he gave his usual un­sat­is­fy­ing re­sponse, “We’ll get there di­rectly.”

But, the Christ­mas jour­ney was dif­fer­ent. The dark of night that seemed so empty and life­less was punc­tu­ated ev­ery 20 miles or so by the sud­den burst of hol­i­day lights which dec­o­rated each small town along the way. I re­mem­ber so vividly ly­ing in the Fal­con wagon, head back, eyes peer­ing up into the dark­ness, watch­ing those twin­kling stars, candy canes, and strings of col­ored lights as our car passed be­neath them in the silent night.

Well, most years it was silent. There was that trip when the Star­liner back­fired all the way to Bax­ley. No telling how many poor souls were duck­ing and cov­er­ing as we rolled through that night.

Bax­ley is a dis­tant echo to me now, as are my grand­par­ents. Within a dozen years of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries, they moved to At­lanta; Alzheimer’s had al­ready stolen from us most of the grand­mother we loved. Shortly af­ter she left us, Parkin­son’s disease would lay claim to my grand­fa­ther as well. Their bod­ies lin­gered here phys­i­cally for some years, but their spir­its died and are buried some­where back in the Bax­ley of my youth.

I feel it ev­ery year on the first night I come upon Cov­ing­ton’s bright and fes­tive square at Christ­mas time. In that moment, I’m 6 years old again, rid­ing in the back seat through the dark night, eyes open wide, gaz­ing ahead with ea­ger an­tic­i­pa­tion as the next town’s hol­i­day lights glow into sight at the point where dark road meets the sky ahead.

Per­haps my fa­ther’s death this year was yet an­other frayed, thin thread to that long dis­tant past giv­ing in to pass­ing time. But, when I drive through our square at night, those lost mo­ments come back as close and real as ever. Some­thing pre­cious is kept safe and brought near again.

If you’ve ever won­dered how a “new­comer” like me can love this town — that’s how.

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